The Robert Wise version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was simple and straightforward. Produced when special effects were primitive, it relies on ideas and characters to convey its message. The nuclear age and the Cold War had just begun. The Age of Science was in the ascendant. It was a time of fear, uncertainty, and hope. The film was set in Washington, DC, the center of political power in the Western World. The space ship, a conventional flying saucer-type craft, lands on a baseball diamond. A figure emerges from the ship, and when he raises his hand, he is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier. He is hospitalized but soon escapes and takes up residence in a boarding house where a young woman (Patricia Neal) lives with her son. They become friends, he reveals himself along with his desire to speak with world leaders, and complications ensue. The Bernard Herrmann score is a spectacular and original enhancement to the film.
The 2008 remake of the film (directed by Scott Derrickson) preserves the main plot outline but transfers the setting to New York City—the space ship lands in Central Park. Rather than a conventional flying saucer, the ship is a glowing, translucent globe. Keanu Reeves plays the alien, Klaatu. Reeves actually could have done well by the part had the rest of the film been something other than what it is. The new film dispenses with practically every admirable element in the older one. Whereas the earlier film shows people infused with fear and wonder as the space ship lands and the alien figure emerges, this new one mainly shows fear. Everyone assumes the spaceship has come to do harm, and the film complicates matters by having not just one spaceship but hundreds land on the earth. The menace they pose is clear. (The idea of subtlety in the 2008 film is a truly alien concept). In the older film we are told that the robot Gort can destroy the world, if called on to do so. We are shown only a few minor examples of his power. He is a frightening and imposing figure, and there is no doubt that he is formidable. But this is clear only because of implication. In the later film we are also told that Gort can destroy the world, and then in graphic and considerable detail for the last twenty or so minutes of the film we are shown how he can do so. The trouble is that I never believed in the robot of the newer film—he looked like a special effect from the beginning, and when he starts in on his destroy-the-world shtick, all I could think to myself was, "these are special effects." Gort in the newer movie lacks the mystique and reality of Gort in the older film. He is an abysmal failure.
Jennifer Connelly plays the Patricia Neal character in the new film. She is an exo-biologist. Federal agents drag her from her house to join a team of scientists supposed to advise and work with the government in deciding how to respond to the alien visit. The new film pays a lot of attention to how the government mobilizes the military to meet the challenge of the alien menace, and of course all their efforts are ineffective. In fact, the new film seems to exult in the notion of humankind's utter helplessness.
Whereas Klaatu in the first film comes to the planet to give a warning (he sees the human race as too warlike), in the second film he comes to destroy. Mankind has created such an environmental danger to the survival of the planet, one of the only planets in the galaxy that harbors complex life, that Klaatu decides the humans must be destroyed to save the planet. Whereas Klaatu in the earlier film shows no hostility and even seems interested in the humans that surround his spacecraft, in the latter film he shows indifference.
The second film relies heavily on special effects, and the human characters seem secondary. They merely follow the alien around and periodically try to convince him that the human race can change and that he shouldn't wipe it out.
Although the second film preserves the major characters of the original (including the robot Gort) and even the basic plot and many of the same scenes (often completely reenvisioned), it substitutes noise and explosions and spectacular effects for intelligence and human engagement with an extraordinary situation. The first film may seem dated, but the second film is simply dead.
The 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still was a visionary film, one that puts aside national boundaries and ideologies and addresses larger issues of peace and survival for the human race and the planet. It is one of the many reasons why I love films.